Church fights to save paintings

Published October 1, 1998

An insidious problem haunts the coloured walls of St. Anne’s Church in west Toronto – a problem that, drip by drip, threatens to damage several valuable paintings by members of the Group of Seven. The roof is leaking, gradually letting water seep toward the artwork.

“When people first come into St. Anne’s they are awestruck by the blaze of colour which makes them think that the building is in fine condition,” said Rev. Peter Orme, rector at St. Anne’s. “Looking beyond the colour of the murals and mosaics, the eye discerns innumerable cracks in the plaster, several areas of water streaking on paintings and at least one painting that is lifting away from the ceiling.”

Mr. Orme and his parishioners are concerned the water will eventually destroy the paintings skilfully designed by Fred Varley, J.E.H. Macdonald and Frank Carmichael, members of the now-famous Group of Seven, artists who transformed the art scene in Canada with their bold landscape paintings. The three members of the group helped decorate St. Anne’s in the early 1920s along with several other artists and sculptors. The paintings are particularly vulnerable to water damage because they were painted on canvas then attached firmly to the wall. Water coming in through the leaky roof can seep in behind the canvas and cause damage.

To fix the problem, the church is in desperate need of money. More than $2 million is needed to repair the leaky roof and make improvements to the masonry, windows and heating system.

“I’m concerned and I hope it can be repaired before it gets worse. If you leave things too long, then it’s too late. Certainly, we don’t want to wait much longer,” said Robin Sewell, a member of St. Anne’s who gives public tours of the church two or three times a week.

“I’m very fond of the paintings and I think they’re world class,” she said. “I’ve been to churches in Europe and these works stand up. I love them.”

The paintings by the Group of Seven ended up at St. Anne’s because of a forward-thinking church rector, Canon Lawrence Skey, rector from 1902 to 1933. In 1923, a bequest of $5,000 from Samuel Stewart allowed Mr. Skey to hire artists to paint and decorate the building.

His choice of members of the Group of Seven was particularly daring considering they were not yet critically acclaimed and, in fact, many people thought their paintings were awful.

The works Messrs. Macdonald, Varley and Carmichael produced are faithful to the Byzantine style of painting. Ms. Sewell says that proves members of the Group of Seven were “not just guys who painted trees. They were real artists.”

Mr. Macdonald seems to have enjoyed his foray into religious painting. After six months on the job, he said, “One quit the work with more regret than pleasure, for one felt that in the beautifying of this local gathering place – this home for the soul of a wide neighbourhood – rector, congregation and workman alike were serving a worthy ideal.”

Some critics have branded the works as more of a “commercial venture” by the artists and not particularly interesting. Others say this kind of thinking is ridiculous.

“Some people might not think these works are important because they’re less than 100 years old, but if we don’t preserve them and other works like it, we won’t have heritage pieces 100 years from now,” said Ms. Sewell.

John Bentley Mays, cultural correspondent at large for Southam’s new national newspaper, the National Post, agrees the Group of Seven paintings are worth saving, “both for the quality of work and who they were; this is a national treasure … It’s worthy of everything it takes because it’s an absolutely unique architectural and historic monument.”

St. Anne’s is not only a victim of a leaky roof, but also of changing demographics. When the Byzantine-style church was built in 1907-08, the neighbourhood, known as Parkdale, was mostly Protestant. Throughout the first part of the century, St. Anne’s was a thriving parish.

People used to show up a half-hour early on Sundays just to get a place to sit, even though the church seats more than 1,000.

The neighbourhood these days, however, is mostly Catholic and St. Anne’s has seen a huge drop in its membership.

Money, therefore, is in short supply. Ms. Sewell said last year people almost gave up hope they could ever raise enough cash to save the paintings. But they’re beginning to take heart, especially after the federal government recently named St. Anne’s a national historic site.

“Because we have an enormous debt to the diocese, people had started to lose hope,” she said. “But now that we’ve been designated a national historic site people are becoming more optimistic … Before, it just seemed like no amount of bake sales was ever going to help.”

But Mr. Orme said the national designation doesn’t necessarily mean the federal government will kick in money for repairs.

“St. Anne’s parish is between a rock and a hard place because it’s saddled with a heritage building (designation),” Mr. Orme said. “Probably the right thing to do from a church point of view would be to abandon the building and operate the parish from a remodelled parish hall.

“But you can’t abandon a designated building, especially when it contains major Canadian works of art. St. Anne’s parish cannot afford to live in its house. Legally and ethically it cannot move out.”

Perhaps one person St. Anne’s has in its corner is Allan Gotlieb, former Canadian ambassador to the United States and the new chair of the Ontario Heritage Foundation. Mr. Gotlieb is enthusiastic about trying to help St. Anne’s raise money and has written letters to Isabel Bassett, Ontario’s minister of citizenship, culture and recreation and to Sheila Copps, the federal minister of Canadian heritage.

Mr. Gotlieb’s influence may encourage the federal and provincial governments to fork over grant money. But Mr. Orme wishes it wasn’t so difficult to convince government officials and the public in general to donate money when it comes to heritage.

“The way I feel about it is it’s high time for the Canadian church and society to come to grips with the fact that it has historical places and buildings which are part of its heritage and require public money for preservation,” Mr. Orme said.

“The church and Canadian society in general need to realize that if it’s going to preserve heritage buildings, it costs a lot of money and so it had better cough up.”


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